I would love to call these (often) little bits of water lakes, but they have to be the furthest thing in the world from being a lake. They hold water and are often at the right altitude – this is a barearsed guess, I have no idea what the right altitude for a lake is – but to refer to them as lakes is pushing it a tad over the limit. In a sense it’s not a lot different to referring to the young lady at the bar as being ‘pretty hot’ just as the clock strikes two in the morning; when the conditions are right and it’s the only game in town you tend to find them more attractive than you may find them in the cold, objective light of an ordinary day.
To my mind a lake is something that you can at very least put a small yacht on. At the bottom of my street there’s a puddle with an honest to god yacht floating on it. It is not this sort of look, rub your eyes, look again and shake your head madness of which I speak. To be a lake you have to be able to raise a sail on the yacht and cruise around like someone in a Peter Styvesant advert of days gone by. Tits and tobacco. Gins and grins. Now that’s a lake.
I’m speaking, of course, of the typical resort dam. It’s a little bit better than a last resort dam; that puddle of almost stagnant water that holds the odd recreational trout. Please don’t misunderstand me, there is no recreational benefit to the trout that has been so unceremoniously dumped into this puddle to live out it’s pitiful days. This battery-run trout is there for the sole recreational pursuits of the angler. (I’m aware that suggesting that a badly stocked trout can be compared to a battery-raised fowl may lead to the opening of an ugly ethical can of worms and that I may unintentionally introduce another pressure on our imported, Eurocentric sport that it doesn’t, at this crucial point, need. I do it simply as a literary device to draw attention to the plight of the much overlooked can-interned worm; the freedom struggle of which is a cause for which I am passionate.)
This last resort dam is the kind of water that holds the kind of fish that looks only too pleased to be whipped out by a #6 Mrs Simpson wielding tourist in white oversized wrap-around sunglasses with mirror blue lenses, a baseball cap festooned with his favorite surf or motor cross brand, a pair of camouflage cargo shorts and yellow flip-flops. Those are horrible waters. Tepid, smelly-at-sunset pools where as you get out of your car in the nearby car park you can, above the spit of the wors roll vendor’s skillet, hear the poorly conditioned trout gasping for air and the eternal mercy of a well directed priest.
Don’t fool yourself either, there’s a lot of this sort of thing around. I have a silent snort (of the not-exactly-snobbish but slightly condescending variety of snorts) when I read Sunday evening social media accounts of weekends spent on these grotesque waters. To put this into perspective, the Sunday evening posting is generally a denouement of the Wednesday morning post enquiring whether anyone knows if such-and-such a puddle has been recently stocked.
Recently stocked? What we’re talking about here is a 48 hour window from being wrenched free from a hatchery pool to being impaled on your hook. Look, don’t get me wrong, a day spent with rod in hand beats a day of shopping arcades and domestic chores by a country mile – provided that it is spent on the banks of an at least remotely sustainable and not-too-far-from-natural fishery.
You don’t need to remind me that in this country we have precious few (less than a half-dozen I would expect) natural fisheries. These are truly sustainable and natural in the sense that fish spawn and populate them without a human hand in their husbandry. They are entirely unnatural in the sense that the fish is entirely exotic and has no natural right nor reason to be there, but at least they’re a step or two removed from being a fishy petting zoo.
You are probably justifiably confused at this point by my rambling discourse so let me try to explain how I rate still waters.
The worst of them I’ve already described. They are the steaming cesspools of the industry where fish are introduced a few days prior to a busy weekend and where their denizens did not grow to their pretty reasonable size by evading humans. Rather, they were chucked in at no less than two pounds and on average at around four pounds and seem to swim up to poly-pocketed vest wearing bipeds in eager expectation of their next meal. I hear you muttering your objections to my assertion. But I see your posts. Got them on large, dense dries, snails and beetle patterns, did you? Like last time? Deadly fly, works every time? Uh-uh, no you didn’t. You got ’em fair and square on hatchery pellet imitations. I’m not mocking. I’m suggesting that you matched the typical hatch perfectly. (Ok, I’m mocking, but I too have hit on ‘babes’ in the wee hours of a morning. When it’s the only game in town, etc.)
On the extreme polar opposite end of the scale is the ‘natural’ fishery that I described earlier. If you’re going to get a fish here you best get your shit together. These fish aren’t stupid. Stop slapping the water with your false cast (in fact, ditch eight of your ten false casts, the fish are very near to you) and work on some sort of a presentation. These fish know better. Crouch. They were stocked by their parents as a surprisingly not ugly-looking blend of eggs and spermatozoa. Their parents ditched them shortly after the consummation of their brief marriage and their orhpans grew up hard and mean or not at all. This life is all they know and they’re damned good at it. They didn’t run the gauntlet of predation, environmental stresses and anglers and grow large by accident. Get a four pound fish here and you can feel good about yourself. Get a six pounder and earn yourself the right to tell your mates that you’ve got your shit together and that they’d best pull themselves a little closer toward themselves or, by God, they’ll need to find another fishing buddy.
These waters are pretty. Very, very pretty. It is because they’re natural. Nothing planted, nothing trimmed and nothing mowed. Is that long grass hampering your back cast? Then feel free to fish elsewhere. Who does one have to sleep with to have your beer delivered to you at the water’s edge? Your mother is on her way with a chilled six pack. This is no-nonsense, as near as you’ll get to the real thing on this continent, fishing. If you get to visit one of these waters more than once every two seasons or so you can count yourself as being privileged.
Second to best among our still waters are well managed private waters. These are generally situated on local farms, are reasonably large and are stocked with fingerlings as opposed to ‘stockies’. These fish are fairly wild (whatever the hell that means). What I mean is that they are very close to natural (whatever the hell that means). Look, this is all very confusing in a mock-scientific sort of way. Fish go in small and in small numbers. Rod pressure is minimal. Competition is minimal. Conditions are pretty good. If they make it through their childhood the fish grow quickly large and are typically well conditioned. If there are inlets and springs and the like feeding these dams they can be very close to the real thing (whatever the hell that means). Weed beds often abound and there is abundant structure.
A drawback of these dams is (apart from you seeing the photographs but never cracking the nod to fish one) that they’re on some bleak ‘Berg farm and particularly in winter are in really shit looking surroundings. That is unless a dust covered and dun colored landscape is your thing – because in that case you’re going to love it. I get that the drawn hardness of a high altitude winter is a thing of beauty in itself but these dams generally have a little reedy triangle like a feminine pubic mound at the shallow end, dusty straw colored and red clay banks along each side and a thoroughly unimaginative earth wall at the deep end; they weren’t constructed for leisure and as enticing photo backdrops. Those in the Midlands often fare a little better in agriculture’s winter beauty pageant than those in the high ‘Berg, but not overwhelmingly so. No, for the most part they’re flat, boring things with big healthy fish.
These dams have fairly grand names, but not ostentatiously so. They generally take the name of the farm that they are on. If there are two dams on the property then one will be assigned the title ‘upper’ and the other ‘lower’. Alternatively ‘big’ and ‘small’ are used interchangeably with upper and lower. If there are three dams the whole system starts to go awry. There’s no ‘in-between’ or ‘mid-sized’ name assigned and, as so often happens two of the three are in any case similar in size. In this instance (and in the rare case of there being more that three dams on the property) the correct thing to do is to just number the dams. Trying to explain the ‘north’ dam to some city dweller who can hardly hear you above his air conditioning fan and through the leather padded walls of his million rand, absolutely essential company four wheel drive SUV (this trip has been recorded as being a conference and till slips are collected for later reimbursement) is a waste of time. This guy couldn’t tell you in which direction the sun rises or sets as much as he can’t tell the difference between a Jersey and a Friesland.
Every now and again some farmer’s wife decides to name each dam. This is pretentious bullshit and if I hear you calling a dam ‘trutta’ and the one next to it ‘salmo’ them I swear you’re buying the beer for the rest of the trip. I wince as I write this because my favorite two dams in the whole world have these very names. I call them the top and the bottom dam. So should you.
Really good, rich and productive dams of this class are well-protected secrets. My mate Terry Andrews assigns to them an interesting nomenclature that starts with ‘Secret Dam #’ and then the number of the dam in, I have to assume, the order in which he has stumbled onto them. There is an inherent problem in this system – Terry, like the rest of us has reached the point in his life where his memory of specific things has somewhat dulled over time. What I mean is that I’m not certain that he is sure whether he is at any time at Secret Dam #81, Secret Dam #43 or just some random irrigation dam that he pulled up next to as a result of his losing his way on the drive. That he catches exceptional fish is beyond question. That he catches them where he thinks he catches them is extremely doubtful. But he’s a really large guy and when the farmer’s daughter yells “daddy, there’s some guy at the dam” and Joe Farmer looks out the window at a six foot something ginger inflating a kick boat he probably figures it’s best to stay indoors and just let it pass without incident.
Second from the bottom (or third from the top, dependent on how you see these things) is the resort dam. Don’t confuse this with the last resort dam, what I’m talking about is the dam at the average ‘Berg holiday resort. The backdrop of mountains is usually pretty stunning. The lawns are mowed, but not normally around the entire waterline and birds and plant life abound. They are fishable, but mind your head for golf balls in flight.
In fact, that is probably the most irritating part of a resort dam – other people. I’m not a fan of company generally (whether it spurns me or whether I spurn it is something of a chicken and egg argument) and some of the worst company in the world is to be found on these dams. Golfers are, quite simply, deadly and best avoided altogether. Every guy with annual timeshare features himself as the next Arnold Palmer regardless (or possibly oblivious) of his obvious lack of skill. Those ‘Big Bertha’ type drivers are weapons-grade stuff and ought to be considered by whichever body updates the Geneva Convention. A golf ball makes a very distinctive shushing sound as it flies past your lug hole and I would imagine an even worse one as it embeds itself in your sternum. A tip in this regard is to peer through your Polaroids at the bottom of the dam. If it contains a pox of white spots then those are golf balls and you’re about to have your relaxing fishing session suddenly turned into an extremely dangerous adventure sport.
Then there’s the group who feel that they have to walk up to ask you whether you’re catching. I’m not sure what that means. Are they looking for a stack of fish at your feet or one on your line? How do you even answer them? Yes, sometimes I am, indeed, catching. Other times I am not catching. At yet other times I am alternatively casting, changing flies, tying knots, untying knots or taking a piss just behind that long grass and in full sight of the bustling sundeck. I am nothing if not versatile. Please reframe your question.
Kids are the worst. (Other people’s kids. I’m sure that yours are darlings.) You can be a few hundred meters from the closest human life, pushing long casts into a channel when a few of them run up with inane questions and conversations. That they ruin your day and that their parents look proudly on as they do it is a given, but hook one of them in any part of their body on your back cast and all hell breaks loose. It’s as though you did something wrong. Or rather, that you intentionally did something wrong. They aren’t allowed to parade back and forth in front of a golf tee box just waiting to be cruelly decimated like a game of Atari Snotty Space Invaders so why would you let them stand in line with my back cast?
The only upside with these bankside idiots is that you can really give the old ego a little stroke if you have half a mind to and the requisite skill set to pull it off. (Also, it goes without saying, that the fish need to be in an obliging mood.)
Every resort dam holds a head of would-be anglers. Everybody has to learn their angling skills (if you have half a brain you would realize that every outing is another step upwards on the learning curve) and I’m not claiming superiority or suggesting that they shouldn’t be fishing. What I’m saying is that when you are among once-a-years or beginner anglers you can truly strut your stuff.
I’m a very, very mediocre caster but when I stand next to a guy who is trying to ‘throw’ his fly at the dam and I pull off a flawless, tight-looped 18m cast with a fine presentation (I may be exaggerating the loop and the presentation somewhat) I look like a pro. After a season of untying wind knots and removing flies from bankside flora it’s a good feeling. The oohs and aahs make you feel all warm and mushy inside. Just don’t offer these guys advice, they’ll shadow you for days.
Then there’s the small matter of catching a fish. I may be a rampant narcissist, but there’s nothing better than arriving at water where you are assured that the fish have been off the bite for a few days and landing a quick few fish. I’ve had this happen to me several times. In fairness, it’s mainly because the guys who were there before me just can’t read the water and adjust to circumstances prevailing. I’m no master of this, but trial and error have resulted in a smattering of lessons that have improved my catch rates notably.
I once arrived just before sunset at a resort dam near Bushman’s Neck. A few guys had been fishing it for nine hours a day for three days without success. For the purpose of intimacy let’s name them Simpson, Hamill and Walker. That fish were feeding a little below the surface on emerging something or others was obvious. That whatever it was that was hatching was not a size eight was equally obvious. That it wasn’t moving at 50 miles an hour was depressingly obvious. I tied on a emerger thing that hung on the surface and a nondescript #18 nymph a few inches below it, New Zealand style. First cast and a neat, plump four pounder was netted. The abuse that I took from the winter-sherry guzzling crowd would make a sailor blush. I came back the next morning for less than an hour and on the same rig caught four decentish fish in quick succession. When I left I gifted them with a roll of suitably thin tippet and a dozen or more small flashback nymphs. Despite them having seen the results of fishing small and light they still wouldn’t believe that a large (or any) fish would take so small a lunch and it took some convincing to have them change their methods (assuming that they ever did).
That’s the thing with fishing, adapt or eat toast. I’ve caught fish in resort (and other) dams a few times where others have not and every time it was because I adapted to what the fish were doing rather than trying to convince them to change to what I wanted them to be doing. Fish are like that – inflexible bastards. Make no mistake, I blank more often than not but a resort dam is a forgiving thing and you will inevitably punctuate your day’s casting with the odd take and fight. This draws a bit of an audience and for someone who spends most of his time fishing solo it’s quite a strangely satisfying feeling being watched while doing it. We all want validation. Why should I be any different?
A half decent resort dam is actually fairly large and while it is regularly stocked with ‘stockies’ the odd one slips through and grows to a respectable size. I only go to resorts with the family and, although this is strongly disputed, spend very little time on the water. I therefore don’t take it seriously and just unwind catching stockies and such by the methods I prefer – stalking around reeds with a light rod and more often than not a dry. Understand this clearly, you will be taken by surprise every so often by a fish that has no reasonable right to be there. When that happens it’s a mad scramble to get your concentration where it needs to be and your net from under the pile of beer cans somewhere along the bank.
I really like taking big fish. I take very few of them mainly because I don’t consciously fish for them. I’m an equal opportunity taker of trout. I love the silly stockie that hasn’t learned to be too afraid. I like that mid-sized fish that has learned enough to occasionally turn away when the leader flashes a little too brightly or when he spies you standing on the bank. If a big fish throws enough caution into the wind (or perhaps that should be the current) I’ll gladly oblige by piercing him in the lip and praying that my thoroughly unsuitable tackle and lack of experience marry well enough to get the job done.
I suppose that with a resort dam that’s the beauty of it. There’s no weight of expectations. You can stuff up and not feel bad about it. You can try something new and possibly waste your time but that’s the only reason why you’re there; to slowly kill a bit of time.
I understand that from time to time I just like the unhurried leisure of casting a line while someone replenishes the bucket of beer at my side.
There are much worse things in this world than that.